Digest>Archives> April 2007

Don Ashby, Light Keeper of Many Talents

By Ronald Pesha


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Trudy and Don Ashby today.
Photo by: Ronald Pesha

Could it be that a lighthouse gene exists? Probably not, but the DNA might explain why lightkeeping runs in families.

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Historic Image of West Quoddy Lighthouse in ...

Born in 1923 in Lubec, that easternmost community in the United States, Don’s father Earle did logging in the Dennysville, Maine region, near Lubec, then earned his sea legs shipping out on vessels including the T. W. Lawson, the only seven-masted ship ever built. Starting about 1933 Earle Ashby served at the mid-water Lubec Channel Light until transferred to nearby red-striped West Quoddy Light in 1939, a mainland light station where Don would become Officer in Charge in 1957. But before that Don’s career took many turns, including combat service during World War Two.

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Lubec Channel Lighthouse where Earle Ashby served ...

I spoke with Don and his wife Trudy, a Cherryfield, Maine native, at their home of over half a century on South Lubec Road...the Quoddy Head Lighthouse road. Many tens of thousands of tourists pass by every year, unaware that one of the pre-automation lighthouse keepers resides in a trim, neat white house facing seaward.

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Maine’s Moose Peak Light Station where Don Ashby ...

"My father served as Assistant Keeper at West Quoddy from 1939 until 1942," Don told me, "when I graduated from Lubec High School. I was a year ahead of Dorothy Gray (daughter of Howard Gray, West Quoddy Light Station 1934-52...See "Lighthouses in His Blood," Lighthouse Digest, July, 2006). "I carried her books as we walked the several miles to school."

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Earle Ashby in his retirement years. He served as ...

Don joined U.S. Coast Guard in 1942, just out of high school. Emerging from boot camp in Maryland at the rank of Bosn’s Mate he volunteered for Signal School at Groton, CT and was promoted to Signalman Third Class. Trained for Port Security and as a Firefighter, then he volunteered for Amphibian training in Battle Creek, MI and eventually went down the Mississippi River through and Panama Canal to West Coast and "headed for Japan."

During World War II Signalman Don Ashby served on LST’s with both Navy and Coast Guard crews as second in command. Thus he helped take various islands such as Sasevo and Guam. "It was getting toward the end of the war but we didn’t know it," said Don. "At one point I had 13 men with me and no orders."

But post-war orders caught up quickly with mine sweeping duty in Saipan, he was finally sent back to Pearl Harbor to be sent home.

Don tried college, a semester at the University of Maine, but "it wasn’t for me," he said. "February 8, 1948, was a cold, cold day when I boarded a bus in Whiting and returned to the Coast Guard. He re-enlisted in the in 1948, then married Trudy Grant of Cherryfield. The young couple settled into a cramped Portland apartment. "I was counting on being assigned to the First Coast Guard District," Don told me.

Three years of cutter service out of Portland led to ice and weather patrol off Newfoundland. Colder weather half a century ago spawned more icebergs than today’s global climate.

"I put in for shore duty in 1953, and worked for a while at Petit Manan Lighthouse. I had requested West Quoddy, and began a full three year tour of duty on September 15, 1953." Transferred to Moose Peak on Mistake Island off Jonesport. Maine, for three years, Don also worked Cross Island Light Boat Station off Machiasport, also in Maine.

"Then the New Group Commander sent me back to West Quoddy in 1957 or 58. I assumed the position of Assistant Group Commander, Calais to Schoodic, headquartered at West Quoddy as Officer in Charge." That’s Coast Guard rank for head keeper.

Retired for good Feb 1, 1968. Worked for General Services Administration in Calais. Maine, which then was in charge of border patrol." Ashby then did contracting work, from carpentry to bridges. "The coldest day of the year I was working on the Beal’s Island bridge." Carrying some very large heavy bolts, Don fell in the water. "The job ended that day."

"The lighthouse work was all interesting, no big deal," Don added. "I kept the daily logs and maintained the station. Checking the light was easy at night. I had the flashes timed and I could look out the window to see if all was well. The radio beacon was very delicate and had to be accurate to one tenth of a second to home in people at sea." In those days before GPS, "the foghorn was synchronized with the radio beacon to determine position."

Don also told me, "We needed the coal-fired power plant. The Lubec Light Plant was none too reliable. And we had ample coal ashes for sanding to get over the hill in winter."

Now eager for career photos, especially lighthouse service, I asked Don and Trudy to see their collection. But they had none. "I was never keen on photos," Don told me. "Too much evidence in case anything goes wrong."

Apparently much went right. Father Earle served 26 years, Don Ashby 24, and son Craig was in the U.S. Coast Guard for 23 years, though not lighthouse service. Daughter Carole never served in the Coast Guard.

Perhaps some such gene does exist. At least among the men.

This story appeared in the April 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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